Off the top of your head, how many historical novels set in 18th-Dynasty Egypt can you name?
There isn't much fiction taking place in this illustrious period of Egyptian history, despite its well-known historical figures (Nefertiti, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun) and major religious controversies, not to mention the many archaeological discoveries from the era. The industry seems to believe that aside from Cleopatra's time, ancient Egypt is a hard sell: the customs are too strange, the polytheistic religion too unrelatable, the names too unromantic.
I don't know about everyone else, but when I pick up a new historical novel, I don't want to read about people just like me.
For readers who crave fiction in this most promising of settings, Lavender Ironside’s The Sekhmet Bed will be a treat. Opening in 1506 BCE, upon the death of Amunhotep I, it depicts a colorful, exotic land filled with feminine power and competition and the interference of demanding gods. Ahmose, the future mother of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s most successful female pharaoh, is the heroine – which may be a first. Little is known about Queen Ahmose’s life or family relationships, which gives Ironside ample room for her interpretation.
A highlight is the fluid, accessible writing style. The descriptions are striking and culture-appropriate – the mosaic floors, the shining Nile waters, a man’s jackal-like laugh – yet don't get in the way of the swift-moving plot. Ahmose, a young woman of fourteen, grabbed my attention from the start. She is just beginning to discover herself as a person when she’s thrust into an unimaginably difficult position. Ahmose, rather than her beautiful 16-year-old sister Mutnofret, is chosen by her mother and grandmother, Egypt's high priestess, to become Great Royal Wife to Thutmose, the soldier hand-picked to be the new pharaoh.
When Thutmose takes Mutnofret as his second wife, their sisterly rivalry is taken to extremes, a premise that has gotten to be familiar. There are obvious comparisons to The Other Boleyn Girl and, some six generations after this novel takes place, Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet in Michelle Moran's first book. The difference here is that while Ahmose and Mutnofret are both strong-willed women who want the same things, they wield different types of power.
Intelligent, sensitive Ahmose is a dream-reader, and the gods speak through her; she has the strength the land needs. Nofret is hot-tempered, sexy, and fertile, a dangerous combination for a sister-queen. She knows how to attract a man, and she plays into her younger sister's insecurities and fears, including the dangers of childbirth. Each treats the other cruelly, and their mistakes have serious consequences. Their ongoing rivalry to outshine the other sometimes leaves their husband in the dust. Nofret may be the designated evil sister, but she never expected to play second fiddle; she had my sympathy at times, too.
Ahmose eventually gives birth to a daughter, Hatshepsut, whom she knows will be an only child. From her visions, she also knows the baby's ka, or soul, is male, and that Hatshepsut was born to be pharaoh in turn. Thutmose loves his daughter but refuses to accept this. It’s here the novel attains its emotional height, with triumph, shocking tragedy, and reconciliation all interwoven in heartrending ways.
The novel carried me smoothly through the characters' drama-filled lives, but I had one niggling observation. Ahmose and Nofret grew up in the House of Women, the pharaoh's harem; they barely see or know their parents or grandmother until after the story begins. There's mention of a childhood nurse, and some older friends and cousins, but the sisters rely primarily on one another. Perhaps their early closeness made it easier to set up their rivalry later on, but still, I wondered why they had no other mother figure to depend on. It felt like something was missing in their history.
Pauline Gedge is the most prolific novelist writing about the same timeframe, and fans of hers should welcome this novel, too. Gedge's ancient Egypt feels alien from the outset, but thanks to her likable heroine and informal dialogue, the world Ironside creates doesn't feel as distant… not at first. She writes in her historical note that she did her best to balance the comfort of the reader against historical accuracy, and I feel she succeeded in her aim. The names, including place names, are authentic, and subtly inserted scenes, such as when Ahmose has her scalp shaved as per custom, emphasize the fact that this isn't a place we know.
The Sekhmet Bed, first in a projected trilogy called The She-King, is published as an e-book in various formats at $5.99; see Smashwords, or Amazon for the Kindle version. (I read it as a trade paperback proof, and, per the author, a paperback edition is in the works.) This is a self-published novel, though don't let that put you off. Despite enthusiastic praise from mainstream publishers, the author's agent was unsuccessful in selling it to one of them; the unfamiliar setting made it too much of a risk. Fortunately, there are new options available to authors these days. For more information, visit Ironside's blog at http://lavenderironside.blogspot.com.